Category Archives: Education

Educational Fantasy #3: Two Teachers in Every Classroom

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In 1984 and 1992, respectively, Ted Sizer, in his seminal works Horace’s Compromise and Horace’s School, argued that there was such a thing in a teacher’s class load as an optimal number of students for educational gains and teacher effectiveness. That number was 75. That’s right. 75 students per teacher. In those days, early in my career, English teachers in my district were contractually limited to 125. I must say that 125 was almost good enough. I felt I knew my students relatively well and that I had the time, the energy, and the pedagogical freedom to serve each of them well. Fast forward into the 21st century after a series of defeating budget crises and renegotiated contracts. In this year, my most humane year in a decade, perhaps, I have approximately 150 students in my charge. Last year, that number was closer to 200. This year, I know that many of my colleagues are close to (or at) this incomprehensible, impossible number. 200.

I don’t know, honestly, how I made it through the last school year. Oh, that’s right. I almost didn’t. And as I reflect on the relative ease of this year comparatively, I can think of only three significant factors: 1). I have two preparations this year; last year I had three. 2). I have 150 students and not 200. 3). I have an enthusiastic and effective student intern. When a teacher has a intern (formerly known as a student-teacher), and that intern is competent, one of the gifts of providing an opportunity for an up and coming new teacher is that when spring rolls around, and there has been sufficient support and coaching throughout the year, it’s time for the mentor teacher to get out of the way.

As a result, while my intern is teaching, I am writing this.

In most every case in American public schools, teachers fly solo in the classroom. Special education teachers may have instructional assistants. Grade school teachers may have volunteers from the community, but for the most part, middle school and high school teachers are independent contractors. True team-teaching, a buzzword of the last decade or two, is a rare bird. While they may collaborate with colleagues now more often than they did a decade ago, this essential fact has not changed: when the bell rings and class begins, teachers will find themselves alone in a room with 30 to 35 teenagers. The only reason I am not right this minute in the classroom with my intern (besides the fact that I am writing this) is that I think it’s important that he is comfortable with this reality and that he for a while is solely responsible for the climate, the logistics of daily classroom planning and implementation, and assessment. So, even as I am NOT doing it while I could conceivably do it, I am about to make this recommendation in the 3rd installment of my educational fantasy, perfect world, pie in the sky, utopian wish list:

Every high school academic classroom should be planned, taught, facilitated, and assessed by two cooperating teachers.

First of all, I think teachers have been independent contractors for far too long. Closing one’s door and doing your own thing are no longer (have never been) viable strategies. Collaboration and cooperation, sharing with another human being the trials and tribulations, the celebrations and victories, the strategies and complexities of an academic classroom should be the norm. The benefits of collaboration are vast–not the least of which, I believe, given that the two individuals in the room work well together and are both qualified and caring, would be a huge, radical, profound increase in student achievement and success. You want to eliminate or drastically reduce drop-outs? Add more teachers. You want to ensure students get the kind of attention they need to realize their fullest academic potential? Add more teachers. You want students to have more substantive feedback and individualized attention? Add more teachers. You want a stronger and more humanizing social structure that may not be present at home? Add more teachers. On this last bit, let’s face it, as the schools are shouldered with more and more social responsibility, if that’s going to be the reality, let’s face that head on: add more teachers.

But how will it be paid for? You know what? That’s not my problem or area of expertise. As soon as our communities, our civil servants, and our politicians (probably in that order) understand that investment in education is a non-negotiable, there will be money to pay for it. We could likely sacrifice a few bombs and planes and tanks here and there and fund the thing three times over. Not properly funding education has always struck me as a catastrophic failure of imagination–and morally reprehensible. I understand it’s a job that is beyond our current class of clowns, so perhaps the first order of business is to vote out these goofballs so that we can get down to business.

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Educational Fantasy #2: Real and Effective Interventions and Alternatives for Students Who Do Not Function Well in School

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Public schools take all comers, don’t they? And that’s as it should be. Those of us who support and desire a healthy public school system believe that this is a fundamental principle that makes a democracy viable, that all our citizens deserve equal access to an educational experience that will grow them into literate, responsible, thinking, productive, engaged individuals who will realize their fullest potential. We know the reality is far from the ideal, and perhaps the most incessant and visceral dilemma teachers face on a day to day basis is that group of students who, for whatever reason, resist our efforts to provide for them this thing we believe is so essential. Our issues are rarely ever with students who are motivated to do their best, and we have huge love for those students of ours who struggle with skills and yet work hard, sometimes harder than any other kid, and despite great obstacles, succeed. No, our issues are with kids who are openly and explicitly defiant and resistant to schooling, who devalue learning, who champion stupidity or childishness, who disrespect benevolent authority, who disrespect their classmates, who cynically reject any understanding about how education could possibly be in their favor, who create disruption for others and deliberately poison classroom communities with their trolling behaviors. These kids make teaching and learning less joyful, more difficult, and sometimes impossible.

We have a moral obligation to educate them, of course. As we understand that their recalcitrance often comes from some deep suffering, we also have a moral obligation to care for them, and, as difficult as it is sometimes, to feel compassion for them. But here’s a Newsflash: teachers are not saints. It’s impossible to educate someone who doesn’t want to be educated, and it’s really difficult to love someone who is fighting you, preventing you from doing your work, sabotaging your intentions, making your sacred space unsafe.

More and more I have come to believe that the traditional classroom, no matter how progressive and inclusive, is not the correct place for these students. The title of this piece suggests that I will have a handful of suggestions to create effective interventions and alternatives for students who do not function well in school. I’ve got nothing. Nada. I only know that in a perfect world, in my educational utopia, these interventions and alternatives would exist. In this educational fantasy, all of my students, every last one of them, at the very least, would understand the importance of education and would be ready and willing to do intellectual, academic work with energy, integrity and respect. Meanwhile, in this fantasy, there is some program that provides students who are not ready or willing with some other thing that, 1. meets their academic needs, 2. teaches them how to be human and humane, 3. gives them an outlet for the release of energy usually expended in disrupting a traditional classroom, and 4. gives them some occupational/vocational skill, a skill that could be used to make things, build stuff, design, create, or fix. And in this program, whenever they decide that they want to join me in the appreciation and understanding of Shakespeare, they are welcome to come back to my classroom.

Honestly, I lack perspective. I’ve taught English at the same high school my entire career. I know there are likely programs in place around the country that work, that have developed strategies for dealing with at-risk kids, but I also know intuitively and anecdotally that these profound and effective strategies are not widely practiced, do not find their way into every nook and cranny of the vast public school system in this country–for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that strategies to help at-risk kids, if they are in place at all, are likely specific and tailored to the districts and communities that implement them; there seems to be no sure-fire way to make certain effectives programs are implemented elsewhere, anywhere else, everywhere.

My district has an alternative school. I’m embarrassed to say this, but I don’t know what they do there. I know that some of the kids I’ve described end up there and some of the ones I currently have in my classes talk about wanting to go there. I don’t know why. Students cannot tell me why outside of saying that they think it will be better for them. They can’t say what they mean by that. I doubt very much that our alternative school has the capacity to welcome all students who need its services. And I am even unsure of the process by which students are selected for such an alternative. I have no reason to doubt the effectiveness of this program, but I also have no reason to celebrate. Is this alternative school successful? And by what standard? Despite the fact that I can’t answer these questions, I am thankful for it, am curious about it, and am hoping that maybe they could take on about a half a dozen of my freshmen boys.

And if the alternative school doesn’t work or can’t expand, what might possibly work as an alternative to the alternative school? Educational Fantasy #3: Two Teachers in Every Classroom.

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Educational Fantasy #1: The Gradeless Classroom

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This spring I have the good fortune of having a competent and enthusiastic teacher intern who is taking responsibility for a number of my classes. It has afforded me some time: some time to do especially good work for the students that remain solely my responsibility, some time to write a poem or two or thirty, some time to get my student growth goals done nearly a month before they are officially due, and some time to THINK, reflect, cogitate. This morning, for example, I thought to myself, as I remembered how many blog entries I have written about the things that are not right about public education, why don’t I, instead, write a series of entries describing fantasies I have regarding education in its best pie in the sky kind of light. In other words, why don’t I do a thought experiment: if things were perfect in the land of public education, how would things look, according to me, that is, and some of my friends? I don’t promise that this series will be especially academic or super serious or practical, but I hope at the very least it will be honest.

It is likely that much of what I propose will seem impossible to some. That’s okay. That would not surprise me. We are all creatures of habit and habits in the realm of educational practice and policy, as we have seen, die hard. But what would have become of us if people did not dream the impossible? See? Some of that shit actually got done. So here we go with Educational Fantasy #1.

I’ve written about this before at length, but it’s worth repeating in the super short formGrades suck. Despite the fact that I have graded students my entire career and continue to do so and even sometimes argue with myself and others about the validity of such antics, I still believe in my heart and soul that grades suck. So my first wish for an educational utopia is the gradeless classroom.

Again, don’t take my word for it. Read about it. Look it up. The research will tell you (at least some of it), (at least the research that I prefer), that grades create anxiety, that grades do not accurately measure, and that grades do not motivate.

What should motivate? Learning. Okay, how do you motivate kids to learn for learning’s sake and not for a grade? Well, if you eliminate grades, what’s left? Learning. Or no school. Most of us would prefer the former to the latter for our young people. Young people may have a different opinion.

I have had several experiences in my life as a student in a gradeless classroom, and you have probably had some as well, and maybe your kids have had some, even now. Let me tell you about a few of these.

Elementary School.  That’s right, at least in my experience as a little tike, I do not remember bringing home letter grades. My son, in his first 6 years of public schooling, has never brought home a letter grade. Don’t get me wrong, elementary school kids are measured, but they are not graded. Instead, teachers report progress toward certain standards or expectations for which kids are something like “in progress,” “meeting,” or “exceeding.” Did we learn stuff in grade school? I think we did. Were we, for the most part, motivated and relatively happy with school? I remember that we were. My son, except for a moment now and again where he complains about a “mean” adult or some level of grade school ennui, is, generally speaking, a pretty happy camper. And he’s learning gobs.

As far as I can tell, grades are introduced to young people in Middle School and continue onward forever and ever. Something wicked this way comes, but I don’t want to talk about that now. Pie in the sky, remember?

My second experience in a gradeless classroom was as an undergraduate at Lewis and Clark College. I took Modern English Literature from the late, great Vern Rutsala. The course was offered pass/no pass, an unusual move for a professor to take during that time, I think. I worked hard. I learned a lot. I read and discussed great books. I passed! It made no difference to me whatsoever that I did not receive a grade. It had no bearing on my perceptions of the value of the class or the rigor of the work, and it had no effect on the level of energy I exerted or invested in studying.

Most profoundly, perhaps, I was accepted, I enrolled, and I completed a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Warren Wilson College, the most significant educational experience of my life-time thus far, without ever reporting or receiving a single grade.

And continuing through adulthood and professional life, I have taken countless courses and workshops and attended conferences taught or presented by all sorts of people and institutions, none of which attempted to give me a letter.

In a perfect world, middle school and high school and college students would not be graded in their classes. They would pass or not pass based on evidence of their learning, learning that is individually appropriate and growth oriented. Did the student learn? Did the little cherub grow? Can he move to the next phase or level of difficulty?

And if he didn’t or can’t? Educational Fantasy #2: Real and Effective Interventions and Alternatives for Students Who Do Not Function Well in School.

 

 

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Finding My Way Back to Courage

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At the turn of the new year in 2016, I resolved to live more mindfully, and in January I joined a local meditation group. A year and some months later, the group still meets every other week, is facilitated by a super competent, compassionate and knowledgeable guy who earns his living as a hypnotherapist. We spend an hour and a half together in silent meditation, in guided meditation, in other meditative exercises and activities, and in discussion over our experiences together.

I enjoy my time with this group very much and in a year’s span I’ve only missed a handful of our meetings. It has inspired me to keep up my own private and daily meditation practice, it has given me some tools for cooling the fires, for dealing constructively with the common stresses of work and family life, for living more reflectively, and subsequently, it has been a boon for that 2016 resolution to work on more mindful living, a resolution that has had more staying power than any I’ve ever set for myself.

I realize, though, that I had another motive for seeking out a meditation group, a sangha, if you will, to enhance and grow my own spiritual experience. I find myself hearkening back and trying to find a way to recreate or recapture a much earlier and more formative experience with mindfulness practice. The search began for me in 1999, the year I embarked on a long relationship and several extended experiences with a program called The Courage To Teach, an educational opportunity based on the work of writer, educator, and peace activist Parker Palmer.

I had read Parker Palmer’s book and had seen him speak once almost a year before, but The Courage To Teach program was news to me several months later, billed as a series of retreats over a two year period and designed as a course in “teacher renewal.” It appealed to me then, closing in on my first decade as a public high school English teacher, because I felt like I was already in dire need of renewal, that already early in my career I felt not a little bit in danger of burn-out. Renewal. There was something about that word. And there was something about another phrase associated with the program: “formation work.” Both resonated with me in a serious and palpable way. Yes, I knew I needed to renew my teacher self, and yes, there was also something inside, gestating, some kind of formation, a sense of  “becoming” something more–or rather, “becoming” into something already there, but dormant.

What followed for me was a two year series of eight Courage retreats, in the late 2000’s another round of four retreats over a single year, and between that first experience and the second, and between the second and this present moment, a smattering, maybe three or four more individual weekend retreats. I have told colleagues and friends of mine that this work, my initial introduction to it and my continual revisitation of it, has been the single most impactful, meaningful, influential, and enriching experience I have ever had, rivaled perhaps only by the heady years during my work toward an MFA in creative writing.

My Courage colleagues and I often joked about the difficulty of describing to someone “on the outside” exactly what it was one “did” at a Courage To Teach retreat. At the center, perhaps, was a fascinating and invigorating paradox, that we were together in community and simultaneously in solitude. Our facilitators gave us poems or short essays to read; they gave us prompts for writing, meditating, thinking, drawing, finger-painting; they asked us questions for conversations in small group or partnerships; they told us to go on walks outside; they gave us two hour breaks during which we were asked to be completely silent, and they brought us together on the eve of our last morning together for Circles of Trust: the Clearness Committee, the centerpiece of the two day retreat. I could go on about any of these listed activities, but to make things snappy I’ll just enlarge this paradox a bit by saying that the goal of all of this work was not academic conversation, was not classroom pedagogy, was not teacher strategies, but rather, in community to invite the individual soul and “inner teacher” of each member of the group. We didn’t discuss things, but we spoke into the circle and were heard. There was almost a religious principle that commentary on what someone else might share was verboten–alongside a serious commitment to confidentiality. The ethos of the work spiraled around a set of community expectations or “touchstones” that worked so powerfully over the proceedings, they are worth listing here. They are repeated and discussed at the beginning of every retreat and often referred to throughout the process. The touchstones ask you to:

  • Come with 100% of your self
  • Presume welcome and extend welcome
  • Believe that it is possible to leave more refreshed than when you arrived
  • Know that there is always invitation, never demand
  • Avoid fixing–no fixing
  • Practice openness and learn from others
  • Speak for your self; use “I” statements
  • Turn to inquiry when the going gets tough
  • Listen to the silence
  • Observe confidentiality

Another complete blog essay could be written about each of the preceding touchstones, but I’ll just say here that these particular norms had such a powerful and positive impact on the way these groups were together, that in as many experiences as I had with this process and with as many different groups of people, almost all of whom were essentially strangers to me, I never, not once, had a negative experience, not even a single moment when I felt anything other than completely safe and taken care of.

It was not, never was, a class or a workshop about “meditation,” per se, but everything about it was meditative, reflective, truth-seeking, and most importantly, respectful and inviting of silence. This is where I learned to meditate. So in the absence of around-the-calendar opportunities for Courage retreats, I joined a meditation group, hoping, perhaps, to be able to recreate or participate in something somewhat remotely like the retreat experience inspired by the work of Parker Palmer.

My experience in a meditation group over the last year and some months comes close. I’m not sure that’s correct. It does its job to create some similar conditions to those of a Courage retreat; also, it’s clearly beneficial on its own as simply another avenue into the neighborhood of raising consciousness, awareness, and equanimity. But I realize now, as I was looking to my meditation group as a  way to recapture the benefits of an earlier experience, that there might not exist an adequate substitute. There are elements to my Courage experiences that might possibly only emerge from a Courage experience. And this was a question often asked in the closing circle of a retreat: how do we sustain this work? How do we embody or continue these practices? How can this influence who I am in the world, with my family, with my students? Some religious people find this in their churches. Non-religious people like myself, who nevertheless hunger for spiritual growth experiences, find it in other places if they are lucky. For now, I’m in a meditation group. In April, I’ll write a poem every day. I’m rereading Palmer’s The Hidden Wholeness. I am thinking seriously about training to be a facilitator of this important, transformational work. Slowly but surely, I am finding my way back to courage.

http://www.couragerenewal.org/courage-to-teach/

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#228: On the Day After the Election

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Having wept myself to sleep the night before,
I got up and went to work in the school house
where we met in small teams in the library
to plan or do curriculum work or talk about
assessments, where instead I chose to color
with crayons at the table our new librarian
set up for art. It was the only thing I could do.
I colored inside the lines with several different
shades of blue and some pink here and there
while I tried to keep myself together.
Talking to anyone, to any friendly face,
I had to work hard not to break down.

I was thankful when students arrived inside
my room. They gave me a focus, a place to
channel my energies, an opportunity to make
some kind of difference. My 9th graders,
unusually subdued and cooperative, dove with
some enthusiasm into a Sherman Alexie novel,
a novel about race, culture, and class divide,
but a novel, too, about hope. Arnold Spirit Jr.
realizes it feels good to help others, and I could
feel that thought resonating inside the room.
Later, my seniors came in for a study of
A Room of One’s Own, and rather than talk and
have to face the reality of this particular irony
head on, I asked my students to make art,
to talk about what was going on in Virginia
Woolf’s head by drawing it on the page.
Students must have paused for a long time
at the passage about the cat without a tail,
the cat pausing, “as if it too questioned the
universe,” as Woolf realizes that, suddenly,

“Everything was
different”
and
“Nothing was changed”
and yet, “the change was there”
not in substance but in sound.
What did men hum before the election?
What did women hum before the election?
And now what, after?
We carry on. We cling to hope.
We agitate and advocate for what we know is good.
We color, and we do what I found today
to be most healthful, finding comfort in
kindness from others and the kind attention
I could give, a hug I received from my son,
and solace in the words on the page.

 

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#227: What We Did Today

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Today we were supposed to
administer the PSAT to all
sophomores and some juniors,
but something went terribly
wrong with the test booklets
and the college board
rescinded the exam.
Suddenly, we had a half school day to kill.
Our students, most of whom were
expecting a day off,
were “invited” by our administrators
to attend school, moving through
an 8 period day in 23-minute sessions.
It’s possible that 20% of our students
attended classes today.
This is what we achieved:

In second period the eight students
who arrived held a spontaneous dance party
at nine o’clock in the morning. During
third period we played beach ball hot potato.
The three students who came to fourth period
talked about Mexican food, bagels, and Canadians.
No one showed up for my sixth period and
during seventh period the ten students who came
played with their phones incessantly. In eighth
period three kids sang songs about Pokemon,
one girl read a book, and one boy worked
on getting a late assignment completed
and there was a conversation about Dungeons
and Dragons but one student accidentally
called it Dungeons and Dungeons.

I wrote this poem, composed an assignment
sheet for a new unit, sent email messages to
a couple of parents, harassed a few kids about
late work and finally learned about a different
test, a reading test, that I had neglected to
give to my freshmen this fall and all the
wonderfully useful things the results might
have told me about the reading abilities of my
9th graders and I’m thinking to myself, holy crap,
on a day on which nearly nothing happened, I still need a nap.

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Final Exam: The Visitor

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Let’s say, you’re beginning class for your seniors in Creative Writing on the very last day of the school year, their final exam. Let’s say you have asked them to do this relatively simple but quite risky thing, to read a piece of their fiction out loud to the class. Okay. And let’s say that today, despite chronic absences all through the semester for this group of students, you have a full house. Are you with me so far?

Let’s say that at the beginning of the period, there is a student sitting at a desk that is not enrolled in this class, but rather, a recent graduate, apparently visiting. At first, you think how nice it is to see this particular kid, a kid you liked, a kid you had in class two years earlier, a kid who, despite his intelligence and capability, struggled nevertheless in his last years of high school, but for whom you have not a single negative or judgmental thought.

Let’s say that it appears that this former student wants to stay. He even says for all to hear that he is excited about experiencing your teaching today, again.  You say, because of the nature of this particular day’s plan, that if he does stay, he’ll be taught not by you, but by the students who will be reading their fiction. He seems perfectly happy about that as well. If this were a final in which kids were “testing” in the traditional sense, you probably would have simply said how glad you were to see this young man, and sent him on his merry way, but instead, you think, what’s the harm? If he wants to hear these kids read their fiction, he is most welcome. You even ask the students, your first mistake, does anyone object to a guest audience member? No one objects.

So as the class begins and the first readers volunteer to read, he sits there and listens. But quite early in the process, he starts commenting, raising his hand for questions, complimenting various readers, in short, becoming an active participant in the proceedings, which irks you, makes you uncomfortable, causes you at one point to say out loud that this student is not the student you remember, to which he replies in agreement, but ads that both students, this one and the one you remember, are equally present. You remember now asking him at this point to be quiet during the readings. Your second mistake is that you have not yet asked him to leave the room.

Strangely, you remember looking up at various points during the next few readings and noticing his absence and feeling some relief about that. Minutes later, however, he’s back in that seat. And now he’s commenting again, directly to students, as they finish their readings, about what he liked and appreciated and it’s getting kind of hard to tell whether he is being sincere or if he is mocking or something else. At this point, you remember saying out loud what everyone in the room is feeling, that you are a bit weirded out and becoming increasingly uncomfortable. Your third mistake: you still have not asked him to leave.

Another student volunteers to read. You have this thought: how nice it is that you haven’t had to call on anyone; they just keep volunteering. But then during this particular reading, the recent graduate, the visiting student starts to do some truly strange things. He gets up out of his seat. He starts to move about the room randomly picking up things like tape dispensers, staplers, and post-it pads, trinkets in front of students, and he’s rearranging them around the room and placing them in front of some students on the desks in front of them and making these strange little gestures with his hands as if he is casting spells while the student still reading finishes. And now this boy has a pair of scissors and you are scared. You remember saying (but at this point things get fuzzy in your brain because your adrenaline is pumping)–you say to him, you need to leave now. You are distracting us and you must leave. He is immediately and profoundly apologetic for “hurting you.” Those are his words, and he begs an opportunity to explain himself. You say, no. You need to go. And then you make your fourth mistake: You ask him before he leaves to put things back where they belong. Your students sit in absolute stunned silence while the boy franticly tries to return everything he moved to its rightful place or its rightful owner. And then he leaves.

The students are flabbergasted. You are embarrassed and ashamed. And the first thing you do, the second correct thing you do after the first correct thing of asking him to get out, is to apologize to your students for allowing that weirdness to go on and on and on.  Somehow, with 20 minutes left in the period, you manage to hear the remaining students read from their fiction. As soon as the bell has rung, you have called student management and asked them to find and remove this visitor from the building.

He comes back into the room almost immediately after that phone call. Apologizes again. Begs an opportunity to explain. Tries. Fails. Something about objects directed toward the students who were reading which created an optimum focus for attention, a reverential respect. He begins to cry. Asks you for a hug, which you give to him. The school’s plain clothes security guy is there to escort him away. The boy asks for still another hug, which you give to him. These hugs, perhaps, the third and fourth correct things you’ve done this morning. You say to him as he leaves, please, take care of yourself.

And as you sit here remembering these events of the morning, you allow yourself for the first time today to really feel something. If you had allowed it inside earlier, you would have lost yourself and you would not have been able to work through the day. But now you are safe to feel something, and mostly, it is not fear you feel for the safety of your students, because you know in your heart that they were never in physical danger. It is not disappointment that the security measures in the building did not prevent this unauthorized visitor from entering the school. That feeling did occur to you today, but it is not what you feel now. It is not anger toward this visitor who robbed attention that was due to your students in this final, potentially profound experience of reading their words out loud to their classmates. You felt that today as well but it is not what you feel now. It is not guilt you feel that you did not protect your students sooner from the vulnerability, the emotional danger of reading their work in the presence of an individual who was not operating at full faculty and was not part of their community. You felt that, too, today, but that is not what you feel now. No, what you feel now is sorrow for this boy, this graduate, this former student of yours, this visitor who is now a kind of lost soul who may very well be in serious trouble and needs more than anything else our compassion and our help. If you were a praying man, you would pray that he gets what he needs to live healthy and fulfilled. Instead, you weep for him now, and hope for him now, and you write this down so that you never forget, which is a kind of prayer after all, offered up to the universe for this boy and all others like him who are needful of something that our schools could not provide.

 

 

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